top of page

Mind over Matter: Yoko Ono at the Tate Modern Review


Yoko Ono with Half-A-Room 1967 from HALF-A-WIND SHOW, Lisson Gallery, London, 1967. Photo © Clay Perry.

Ground-breaking, trailblazing, radical. Yoko Ono was a pioneer of early participatory and conceptual art, and her career has spanned seven decades and an impressive range of creative practices, through which she has remained dedicated to promoting world peace. This is the vision that Tate Modern promises as it opens the largest exhibition of her work in the UK, which brings together over two hundred pieces along with recently digitised and never-before-seen photographs of Ono’s creative circle in early sixties New York City.

Ono has certainly been a powerful force in visual and sonic art and popular music, as well as a cultural icon and a committed campaigner. The exhibition poignantly frames her belief in the power of the imagination as the outgrowth of early experiences in wartime Japan; Ono cites her first conceptual artwork as her response, as an evacuee, to staring up at the sky, which has become for her a recurrent motif of freedom, and of shared humanity. The artist insists upon the political and creative efficacy of fantasy and imagination. For her the idea of universal peace and love, like the idea of an artwork, is paramount, because it holds the potential for its realisation, inviting positive action and meaningful change.

This exhibition gives us glimpses into this visionary potential, but the emphasis on ideas over their realisation, on mind over matter and over the body, sometimes feels more of a retreat from reality than an opportunity to invest in and influence future realities. The inclusion of a participatory artwork and a sound or music installation in each room is intended to engage visitors in the full sensory spectrum of Ono’s work, to encourage action, and to break down artist-audience boundaries. But instead it feels inconsistent, under-theorised, and even a little tokenistic given the initial insistence upon the primacy of the concept. Whereas the Marina Abramović exhibition at the Royal Academy just a few months ago leant into the complexities and contradictions of re-staging the performance artist’s oeuvre in a gallery setting, the Tate curators seem to shy away from the sense of irony and irreverence in Ono’s work, from ambivalence, and from addressing the issues of presence, mediation, and political effectivity which are surely at stake in the retrospective presentation and reception of this artwork.

Most prominent in the exhibition are Ono’s ‘instruction pieces’, which involve verbal directions for the production of ‘paintings’. These ‘paintings’ range from the sublime to the ridiculous to the inane. At their first exhibition at the AG Gallery in New York in 1961, Ono delivered instructions in the form of a whisper, asking audiences to realise her artworks from materials hung in the gallery space. Increasingly, however, the artist began to present the instructions, in written format, as the artworks themselves, culminating in the self-publication of her Grapefruit anthology in 1966. Grapefruit mixes the mundane with the mind-bending, including realisable concepts alongside those which stretch the limits of practicality, polite society, and the very laws of time and space. It proffers different ways of seeing and being in the art world, and the world at large, that point towards realities beyond our own, before deflating them with a humour which invokes the mundane and the bathetic.

To what extent these artworks can move us beyond intellectual exercise, however, is less than self-evident. With her idea of the ‘Music of the Mind’, Ono likens her conceptual art to the musical work concept, which locates the artwork in an inaudible, metaphysical ideal, and elevates the score over sound, performance, and experience. Although Ono’s instructions invoke time, space, and materiality, then, they also remove her works from their domain, if not from the realm of possibility altogether. In so doing they render us, imaginary co-creators, invulnerable and omnipotent, but they also wall us off us from each other and from reality in ways which may hinder rather than help their political efficacy.

The overemphasis on the power of the imaginary and the ideal in the exhibition layout and commentary obscures both the material barriers to realising our ideals, and the empowerment to be found in the messiness of the material and the interpersonal. The cynic among us might look at the display on Ono and John Lennon’s Acorns for Peace (1969) in gallery five, which includes a lukewarm letter of response from the Israeli government, as an indicator that it is not enough to simply ‘imagine’ peace. Idealism can only be the first step of many.

Yoko Ono, FLY 1970-71. Courtesy the artist.

Performances like 'Cut Piece' (1961) and 'Fly' (1968) instead maintain a more ambivalent position, and explore the vulnerability of the human person to degradation and decay. They remind us that only when the instruction-works are realised, and we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to each other, to material space and the passage of time, to imperfection, do they become politically and affectively useful.

'Painting to Shake Hands (Painting for Cowards)' (1961) and 'Bag Piece' (1962), which visitors are invited to recreate in galleries three and four, both stage the collision of our idealistic sense of self (behind the canvas, within the bag) with the outside world. Like 'White Chess Set' (1966), they are about reconfiguring our sense of Self and Other in order to foster more equitable and caring relationships with those around us. Ono invites us to find our idealised, private selves, and to shake hands with an Other whom we cannot yet see and label as ‘other’, but she also calls us ‘cowards’ for remaining hidden (presumably even more so if we remain hidden in our own heads). The unwritten instruction is for us each to take our ideal selves and our ideal relationship with others out into the real world and to try to maintain them there. Further foregrounding within the exhibition of this competing conception of art as participatory and performed, rather than purely idealistic, might have made a more convincing case for the political and affective power of Ono’s art.

Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind is on at Tate Modern until 1 September 2024.

Under 25s go for £5.


Edited by Samuel Blackburn


bottom of page